Reviews: Marjory Harper Considers Baynton’s Defectives in the Land

Douglas C. Baynton. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 177 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-36416-2.

Reviewed by Marjory Harper (The Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, The University of Aberdeen)
Published on H-Disability (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

The neglected significance of disability in shaping attitudes and policies is the dominant thread in Douglas Baynton’s revisionist study of restrictive immigration legislation in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is at pains to address the historiographical amnesia that has impeded our understanding of the driving force behind a series of enactments bookended by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the National Origins Acts of the 1920s. The key objective of those who made and enforced policy was, he argues, to debar immigrants, and even visitors, on the grounds of a range of physical, mental, and moral disabilities, which allegedly rendered them “defective” and therefore a threat to the security, prosperity, and progress of the United States.

These general observations are made in the introduction, revisited frequently throughout the four succeeding chapters, and reinforced in the conclusion. Baynton contends that the early decades of immigration law reflected “an unusually intense fear of human defects,” but that the emphasis on ethnicity and race as criteria for selection or rejection masked persistent concerns about disability (p. 2). Such concerns were frequently encompassed in the stereotyping of “undesirable” races or ethnicities as physically inferior, mentally unstable, sexually immoral, or politically radical: in other words, congenitally defective categories of immigrants who were incapable of assimilating into the developing American nation.

The book’s substantive chapters are entitled, respectively, “Defective,” “Handicapped,” “Dependent,” and “Ugly.” Baynton uses these blunt and pejorative labels to explore American aversion to various manifestations of disability and to evaluate the impact of immigration restriction, particularly on Europeans who passed through–or were rejected at–Ellis Island. The first of these chapters considers the devastating impact of eugenic nationalism, which empowered restrictionists to argue for denial of entry to any would-be immigrant who deviated from the subjective definition of “normality.” Decisions were grounded in prejudice, not evidence. Since most exclusions were made on the grounds that the immigrant was “likely to become a public charge” (p. 7), it is impossible to calculate the specific targeting of disability, but it was claimed that physical, mental, and moral health were interconnected, and defects were assumed to be mutable. As a result, individuals with a disability of any kind risked rejection by medical inspectors, not least for fear that they would degrade the quality of future generations of Americans. When screening for defects did not satisfy the restrictionists, a literacy test was introduced, which, Baynton argues, was a proxy for eugenic fitness, and the nebulous concept of poor physique also moved to the center of the eugenically fueled debate.

Chapter 2 explores how attitudes to disability, and the exclusion of disabled immigrants, were affected by changes in the meaning of time. As scientific discoveries in geology and evolutionary biology challenged traditional concepts of historical time, and as the development of a market economy and industrial production reshaped everyday time, a new vocabulary was invoked. Terms such as “handicapped,” “retarded,” and “abnormal” were used to describe individuals who, it was claimed, could not engage effectively in the competitive race for life. By the 1890s, theological world views of the causes and consequences of disability were giving way to the idea of handicap, and its perceived correlation with eugenic and economic weakness, failure, and inefficiency. Exclusion of physically, mentally, and morally “defective” and “degenerate” immigrants was closely bound up with the opportunities and threats that faced the American nation at the turn of the twentieth century. There were fears that economic expansion (and even democracy itself) could only be sustained if immigration was rigorously policed, and it was deemed particularly important to guard against the specter of genetic contagion, which threatened the very existence of the United States by injecting pauperism and criminality into society for generations to come.

In chapter 3, the author evaluates another consequence of industrialization and the rise of a largely unregulated market economy. In a culture that increasingly emphasised efficiency and performance, independence became a sine qua non. Without any recourse to empirical testing, disabled people were denied entry on the grounds that they were social dependents rather than contributors to the economy, and were therefore burdensome. Discrimination extended to temporary visitors, even if they were of independent means and/or sponsored by their hosts. For example, in 1905 the Christian Missionary Alliance of New York invited British missionaries George and Anna Murray to undertake a five-month public speaking tour about their work in Palestine, but they were detained at Ellis Island because George had deformed feet and Anna was blind. In similar vein, and particularly ironically, Robert Middlemiss, a sergeant major in the British army, was initially denied entry after being invited by a New York businessman to visit the United States to deliver lectures about the ability of blinded veterans to live and work independently. In both cases the speaking tours eventually went ahead on appeal, after the visitors produced proof that someone would take responsibility for them. Others were not so fortunate, particularly if they lacked influential sponsors, and children were particularly vulnerable to rejection.

The final substantive chapter analyzes the growing intolerance of difference, particularly in urban environments that demanded social conformity to an undefined standard of “normality.” Snapshot diagnoses by immigration inspectors resulted in the exclusion of many individuals who had no functional impairment, but who were deemed to be potential supplicants for public relief simply because of their appearance or demeanor. The statutory requirement to exclude those with “loathsome or dangerous diseases” (p. 109) gave almost unlimited discretion to officials, since whether or not a disease was “loathsome” depended on subjective judgement rather than medical classification. More insidious than visible defects was the fear of hereditary illness and inner corruption, and individuals whose sexuality was ambiguous were commonly excluded.

The book is well researched, clearly structured, and readable, not least because the analysis is illustrated, sometimes poignantly, by a number of judiciously selected case histories. But Baynton offers scholarly insights not only into the formulation and implementation of immigration policy in the age of eugenics. His approach also highlights the importance of disability studies per se, and demonstrates how this methodology might be applied to other fields. As he points out, we are all defined by the presence or absence of disability, which has shaped cultural understandings of race, gender, class, age, sexuality, economic performance, and much else. The only problem is that, in his eagerness to demonstrate that the exclusion of “defective” individuals was the main objective of American immigration policy, the author (particularly in chapters 1 and 3) actually damages his argument by excessive repetition of the key points, with the consequence that the narrative occasionally takes on the tone of a crusade.

Baynton’s study begins in the 1880s, as the era of Reconstruction gave way to the reestablishment of a regime of white supremacy in the American South and increasing concerns about the criteria for citizenship. It ends in 1924, when the onus of medical inspection shifted decisively to US embassies and consulates in the sending countries. Thereafter, it became much more difficult to quantify the impact of immigration law on disabled immigrants, though, as the author points out, suspicion, fear, and negativity remained enshrined in legislation as well as attitudes for much of the twentieth century, persisting even to this day. Indeed, a sobering lesson to be taken from this slim but incisive study is that we still have much to learn.